When I moved from regional Victoria to university in Melbourne, I was excited about my newfound freedom. However, there was also an underlying sense of panic. I wasn’t sure if anything I’d learnt at school was relevant to my new life in the big smoke, and I was thirsty for real life knowledge. I turned to books to see what I could learn.
One of the first and most memorable was Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, conveniently set in the same neighbourhood as my college, but with characters more worldly than I have ever been. Then there was Milan Kundera, mainly because I loved the angst of the title The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I hurried to catch up on all of the classics I felt a university student should have read; there was One Hundred Years of Solitude and Middlemarch, Primo Levi and Toni Morrison.
Unfortunately, read in such a rush, these books were thrown aside and another picked up before I had the chance to think about any of their themes or ideas, or connect with any of their characters. I felt like I’d turned up late to a party, and was drinking fast to catch up. And, just like catch up drinking, it was a mistake. Now, and probably soon after finished them, I couldn’t remember any of the stories that I read in such a frenzy, skating over paragraphs and unconcerned about hidden meaning. Ambiguity was my friend when I didn’t understand what had happened. So much ambiguity.
This is why, in recent months, I have felt a little worried when I have seen parents posting on social media, asking for recommendations of books that their children should have read before they start university. They are echoing the fears that I once felt that I would be at a loss if I had not read at least some of the great works of literature.
Commenters and even online publications have responded to the call, putting together their own lists of such books, full of F Scott Fitzgerald and Herman Melville, Harper Lee and Leo Tolstoy.
While I usually love lists like these (and full credit to these thoughtful parents who want to ensure their children are prepared), I am reluctant to offer my own thoughts, adding to any prescriptive idea of what should be read at this particular time. After all, the reading journey can be at its best when unpredictable and intuitive.
As Justine Hyde put it in her essay in Meanjin, it is the strolls down unintended paths that take readers to the most interesting places.
“I start the year reading new release fiction and get sidetracked by memoir and essay. I go on a tangent with novellas and poetry and I emerge blinking in the borderlands between experimental, speculative and dystopian fiction. I am guided on my meandering by enthusiastic book reviews, seductive bookstore displays, the obligations of book club, the hype of awards long and shortlists, and the insistent recommendations of friends.”
If pressed, my suggestions of books to start with would be The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Jane Eyre, Lolita, Beloved, Brave New World, 1984 and Animal Farm; classics so familiar as to have become cultural references. These are books that are highly readable and, so enduringly popular that there is an assumption that everyone has read them. They are also all, in their own ways, some of the best examples of writing and thinking, and of themes that remain as relevant as ever, whether about teen disillusionment or ill-fated love, sacrifice, politics or power.
But if these novels don’t appeal, scour the shelves of classics, modern classics and new releases and find books you are interested in. They will lead you where you need to go, along those winding paths.
And ultimately, no one cares what you have or have not read when you’re starting university. Everyone else is too busy planning how to sneak into the next college ball.
Life is too short to cram in all of the worthy books that we should have read, especially as an 18-year-old on the cusp of their first taste of freedom. Explore the greats at your leisure, but don’t do it in such a rush that you fail to recognise their greatness.